Hell’s Highway: Airmen recount surviving IED, saving each other’s lives

Wednesday, December 7, 2016 - 13:20
  • Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Wiedmer, a vehicle operator assigned to the 773d Logistics Readiness Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, received the Purple Heart after he was wounded by an improvised explosive device, and suffered a traumatic brain injury and severe burns, in Iraq during his 2011 deployment in support of Operation New Dawn while serving as a lead vehicle commander with the 424th Medium Truck Detachment. Wiedmer stresses how important resiliency was to his recovery, and finds fulfillment in mentoring young Airmen saying he strives to live up to the noncommissioned officer standards he was shown as a junior Airman. (Photo by Justin Connaher)

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON — A couple of milliseconds.

That’s how much time Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Wiedmer, lead vehicle commander, and his driver, then-Airman 1st Class Daniel Clark, had to react and get their convoy out of the killzone after an improvised explosive device detonated underneath them.

Fire filled the cab and everything went orange.

The crippled truck barely moved on its own; they had no idea how far they’d make it or how badly they or their truck was damaged. There would be time to find out later — when the convoy was safe.

Before he was a vehicle commander leading convoys out of Iraq in 2011, Wiedmer was a driver pulling cargo into Iraq in 2008.

“When I was coming up for my first deployment, [my noncommissioned officers] pulled me aside before I left,” Wiedmer said. “They said, ‘Treat it as if it’s real, every day. Every time you’re out there, make sure you’re 100 percent in the game. That split second could be the end of it — for you, for your team.’”

That split second can be all the time in the world — it can reduce a lifespan from decades to minutes. It requires instant, decisive action.

Through that first deployment, Airman 1st Class Wiedmer was watching his LVC and other NCOs, learning, especially when the unexpected occurred. He was with the 70th Medium Truck Detachment for 9½  months, stationed in Kuwait but nearly always outside the wire in Iraq on 20-day road trips that were anything but fun.

“Anytime you go outside the wire, you’re going to have something occur,” Wiedmer said. “Sometimes it’s just little stuff; they’ll be out there watching, videotaping you, kids throwing rocks, stuff getting stolen off of trucks. That’s pretty much your average trip.

“Throughout the deployment, we also had complex attacks — IEDs in conjunction with a ground assault from insurgents. We had small-arms fire, snipers, mortars, rocket attacks, mortar attacks and landmines.”

There was no free time, he said. There was just sleeping, eating, getting cleaned up, or getting back on the road.

In 2011, Wiedmer deployed again, this time with now-Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Clark, as part of Operation New Dawn with the 424th Medium Truck Detachment.

Clark, a vehicle operator with the 19th Logistics Readiness Squadron at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., equated the experience to serving time. Crammed in close quarters for so long, there’s nothing to do but make friends.

“You’re pretty much stuck with each other,” Clark said. “So we build very strong bonds, a brotherhood.”

In addition to building a respect for each other during their 2011 deployment, Clark said he developed a respect for his own mortality. Nearly the entire tour was spent outside the wire, and he had to accept every day could be his last.

 “You become numb to it,” he said, “going outside the wire every day. We had to fall back on our training. It’s hard to stay sharp, stay focused and keep your head in the game when you’re sitting in the truck for 18, 20, 30 hours.

“For 19 hours nothing happens. Then for five minutes, everything happens. It’s the strangest experience. That’s when we rely on our training; those five minutes. It all boils down to reacting to the situation. Don’t think, just do. Get your people out of it. Get your equipment out of it — if you can.”

They were in good company, working with Army units who provided additional security.

“It was a different Army team almost every mission we went on,” Clark said. “So there was an unspoken respect for one another. We knew they knew their jobs, and they were there to protect us.”

“There’s nothing like a bunch of Army guys with .50 cals to make you feel safe,” Clark said with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “As safe as you can be out there, anyway.”

Operation New Dawn was largely the same as Wiedmer’s previous deployment, he said.

“I didn’t notice a big shift in the mission,” Wiedmer said. “We were still doing convoys, the tactics were pretty much the same; the only thing that changed is we were driving empty up and full back instead of full up and empty back.

“I thought it would be safer.”

He was wrong.

“I drove,” Clark said. “The truck commander, Sergeant Wiedmer, operated digital maps and other systems to navigate to our destinations. We were the first in line, the leader of the actual convoy.”

On the last load out of a forward operating base called Warrior, just north of Tikrit, Wiedmer said, it happened.

Five miles from the FOB, fire filled the cab, setting the dashboard alight. The smell of his ceramic body armor heating up, burning his chest, flooded his nose. Then the dirt blocked everything out, leaving only its grit.

Because of advances in vehicle armor, enemy combatants had learned to rely less on penetrating the vehicle, and more on generating a concussive wave to kill Americans.

“I remember the noise the bulletproof glass made when it went,” Wiedmer said. “The sound the armor made as the fire was cooking it. I was able to appreciate every moment of it as it was happening. I always envisioned it would be super-slow motion, that everything would just crank down. I’d had them go off pretty close to me before, right in front of me, or the truck behind me or something like that. I always envisioned if I actually struck one head-on, time would slow down.

“It didn’t. It all sped up — much, much faster — but I saw every single detail.”

“What do I do?” Clark yelled.

“Get us out of here!” Wiedmer screamed almost simultaneously.

They’d had their 19 hours of nothing; now it was time for five minutes of everything. They were in luck, the truck could still move on its own — somewhat. Their training paid off.

“He got us out of the killzone,” Wiedmer said. “You never want to linger ... they could have had guys waiting to jump us, or snipers waiting for us to get out and see what happened, they could have had [rocket-propelled grenades] waiting for us to stop — everything’s bad if you stop in that situation.”

Wiedmer radioed the convoy commander to let him know they’d been hit, but everyone already knew. They’d lit up the sky.

As the convoy limped to an area they could secure, the Airmen gave each other a quick once-over for obvious wounds; both seemed OK. Once they could stop, the rest of the vehicles providing bristling defense, they evaluated the damage to the vehicles — and to themselves.

“I had burns on my chest from the ceramic plate heating up in the fire. I didn’t notice my ears bleeding or any other problems I was having until I got back. I was just so thrilled at the way Clark reacted to the situation, how quickly he got us out of the killzone,” Wiedmer said. “He saved our lives — guaranteed.”

The nearest medical facility was 150 miles away with no alternatives. They were out of options and it would be hours of pain for the wounded Wiedmer before they could find relief.

However, he was still a vehicle commander and still responsible for the convoy. In the damaged truck, he kept an uncomfortable vigil as Clark drove.

“I do live in regret,” Clark said. “Sometimes I ask myself, could I have done something? Could I have seen something? Maybe there’s something I missed.”

Wiedmer has a different perspective.

“Daniel Clark was an amazing Airman, now he’s an amazing NCO,” Wiedmer said. “No doubt about it, he saved my life that day. I would gladly go into combat with him again.

 “I trust him with my life.”

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